For those who like to listen, I've also provided a helpful vocal recording:
If you want a sobering exercise, try buying dish detergent in a country where you do not speak the language. “Come se dice dish soap” will not get you closer to purchasing said dish detergent, nor will “dove è il dish soap.” There is, of course, the international language of package design—the modern equivalent of medieval signage wherein a picture of an artichoke would denote a vegetable store, or a hock of ham would indicate a butcher—but if you spend twenty minutes staring at inscrutable rows of antic colored plastic bottles and can’t find that familiar uxorious shape, you’re kind of fucked.
Eventually you stumble around, and you realize that Italian supermercati don’t abide by the organizing principles that you have grown up to expect. They will, for example, place the cat food directly above the preserved fish products. It’s a prolonged game of “Witty, Pragmatic, or Oblivious?” and you’re not winning.
Living in Italy for three weeks now, I realize I’ve carved out for myself a strange interstitial life, one where I’ve not quite committed to an ex-pat existence, but one where I have slowly relinquished many of the customs and pleasures of my Gotham life. I no longer, for instance, really just wish I could call a diner and have them deliver a fucking veggie burger, already.
I dream in Italian, but I don’t understand it. Everyday conversations swirl around me, and I try to latch onto words and phrases with my grubby, fat toddler’s hands. I am a kindergartener of language and custom stuck in the body of a ferociously intelligent woman. Squat and mute in the stream of gossamer cocktail talk, I feel like an elite athlete in a full-body cast. I could make jokes. I could banter. I could shine bright and brilliant if only I could understand. I can’t. My tongue curls and clefts and tingles and aches. I am lost.
“Allora” punctuates Italian conversation. Its frequency is to American “whatever,” and its meaning inhabits the linguistic grey space in the Venn diagram of “now,” “then” and “soon.” It’s not our idea of “now,” which is “ora.” It’s also not "then" like English “then” which indicates a time both in the past and in the momentary abstract future, nor is it soon, which means nowish. It’s a grey-space word and it is everywhere. Its ubiquity speaks volumes about the Italian relationship with time.
So does the phrase “è cosi,” which means “it’s like that.” There’s a pervasive resignation here. Italy has been plundered so many times throughout history. È cosi. You can’t get Wifi. È cosi. You can’t drive your car down that street. È cosi. The cashiers at the supermercato hate you. È cosi. Berlusconi is a criminal, a cheat, a cretin and a douchebarge. È cosi.
È cosi. È cosi. È cosi. Allora.
I’ve been a great big geek my entire life, and I’ve been reading science fiction since I first stumbled on an Asimov novel in a pile in my parents’ bedroom. I was, I think, eight. But for the first time in my life, I really get it. I am a stranger in a strange land. These people are not my people; their customs are not mine; no culture in its right mind shuts down between 1:00 and 3:00 every day; it’s madness, I tell you, madness.
Which is to say that I’ve been mainlining Dr. Who and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Science fiction has grown less fictional and more real. I try to assume the bemused British façade of the Doctor, to adopt the eager disposition of the Companion, and to remember always to carry my towel. Above all, I try to remember this: Don’t Panic. If the cashiers at the supermercato hate me (and they do; they reject my carefully phrased apology of “Mi dispiace. Sono americana e il mio italiano è terribile”; they roll their eyes and flare their nostrils with such vehemence that I can hear it; it sounds like pigeons landing), I summon those words. If I don’t stamp my train ticket and the conductor acts as if I’ve committed a grievous sin, I summon those words. If I am negotiating a sidewalk the breadth of a kitchen counter as traffic whooshes by so close I could touch the cars, I summon those words.
The cemeteries are lovely. The produce is stunning. The men are often good-looking. I can see the sea from my parlor window. My friends still love me. Don't panic.
I want a cheeseburger. I want a lover. I want to understand. I want my dog, my closet, my friends, my voice. I want to get rid of these Euro coins. My wants pile up and cause a scrum of hooligan needs. I want. I want. I want.
(This is how you say “dish soap” in Italian: piatti gel. Easy peasy. Don’t panic.)